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Alberto Giacometti / Ali Cherri : Envisagement at l’Institut Giacometti

Partial installation view of Alberto Giacometti / Ali Cherri Envisagement at l’Institut Giacometti

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL February 26, 2024 

Institute Giacometti, chicly housed in a small and lovely Paul Follot Art Déco hôtel particulier, grants intimate exposure to the prevalent mise en abîme trend of cultural reclamation with their exhibition Envisagement by Lebanese (Paris-based) filmmaker-artist Ali Cherri. As the title whistles, this cross-generational multicultural show is about the notion of “envisagement”: a term referring to both the act of envisaging (contemplating a possibility or desirable future event) and the evocation of the human face (visage).

In a sense, the treatment of Giacometti’s work within Envisagement brought me face-to-face again with the treatment of all art that has been slipped into the heterogeneous-and-homogeneous total-data-field where objects lose difference while gaining participation in world spectacle. This is where “culture is what remains when all else is forgotten.” (Édouard Herriot) As such, Envisagement is representative of the fad for arranging art objects into a nonlinear scenography, which actually does Giacometti no injustice, as Giacometti wrote in 1965 that “All the arts of the past, of all eras, of all civilizations suddenly appear in front of me, all simultaneously, as if space took the place of time.” Certainly this is the stuff of the imaginary museum of André Malraux—whose collection L’Univers des formes purported to contain everything artistic in the world presented all at the same level. In addition, in 1970, Gene Youngblood, in Expanded Cinema, maintained that the notion of universal unity is a logical result of the psychological effects of the global communications network.  

Cherri appears to agree here with his sculpture Wandering (2022). It is an attractive assemblage of undated terra cotta feet, an 11th century French sandstone headless bust of John the Baptist, and a 18th century alabaster head: a totalizing collection of historic diversity. We can compare this lovely postmodernism to Giacometti’s relentless existential searching, evident with Head of Isabel (1937-1939), a Giacometti sculpture of Isabel Nicholas. Indeed, these kinds of dared comparisons make for an interesting art experience. 

Ali Cherri, Wandering (2022) sandstone acephalic bust of Saint Jean Baptiste (France, late 11th century); alabaster head (France, 18th century); votive feet in terra cotta, brass 47 × 32 × 22 cm Collection of the artist © Ali Cherri

Alberto Giacometti, Head of Isabel (1937-1939) plaster with highlights in pencil 21,6 × 16 × 17,4 cm, Collection Fondation Giacometti

Giacometti’s Grande Femme (1958) (left) Cherri's Tree of Life (2023) Center) and Cherri’s Divination (2023) (right)

Ali Cherri, Divination (2023), Female marble head (17th century); marble draped fragment from Roman period; pair of hand-shaped clappers in the New Kingdom or 3rd Intermediate Period style; steel, wood 77 × 25 × 22 cm, Collection of the artist © Ali Cherri, photo by the author

Perhaps the Cherri piece that delivers the easiest sensual pleasure in that sense is Tree of Life (2023), that Cherri placed near Giacometti’s Grande Femme (1958). Lurking near is Cherri’s Divination (2023): an assemblage of a 17th century female marble head and a Roman period marble draped fragment and a pair of Egyptian hand-shaped clappers from the New Kingdom/3rd Intermediate Period style. Tree of Life is an image Cherri cast in bronze as a sculpture that he appropriated from the Louvre’s Neo-Assyrian bas-relief from the Sargon II Palace in Khorsabad, Iraq. In an interview Cherri states that he sees this stylized image as a form for thinking universality—that it is representative of knowledge unlimited to a single place or a single civilization. 

Though I take some issue with his facile totalizing, what is elegantly universal about this panache arrangement (and Envisagement in general) is its unified color theme. Tonal harmony gives the show the pleasure of restrained elegance as almost everything in Envisagement is in white or earth tones. Cherri selected no Giacometti bronzes to show. As he stated, those bronzes correspond to closely to the heroic impulse for Cherri, who prefers Giacometti’s fragile plaster work that, as Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre have described, seem to oscillate between nothingness and being. 

Partial installation view of Alberto Giacometti / Ali Cherri Envisagement at l’Institut Giacometti 

Like Genet, Cherri likes the plaster works fragile-eroded look which suggests the degeneration of breakable human bodies. (Poignantly, while working on Envisagement, Ali endured a thigh bone fracture in a bicycle accident.) 

Theoretically, in Envisagement Genet the thief does support Cherri the captor of appropriated broken historical objects. Through Genet’s insightful eyes I was able to compare Cherri’s postmodern hybrid-grafts to Giacometti’s modern plasters. Cherri’s sculptures—like Goddess, (2023), that uses an Indus Valley Goddess idol, The Angel of History (2023), that contains a marble Roman-period Janus head, and The Man with Tears (2023), that starts with a 14th/15th century stone head—work through a still absence of historical time that hopefully allows access to the emotional wounds that characterize all human beings. 

Ali Cherri, Goddess (2023) Idol with pinched nose (Indus Valley); golden leaf, steel, wood, coating, 10 × 8 × 8 cm foreground

Ali Cherri, The Man with Tears (2023) stone head from the 14th/15th century, carved, with flat and smooth eyes to evoke the ancient tradition of depositing a coin in the eyes of a dead man, patinated silver, plaster, steel 49 × 41 × 31 cm, Collection of the artist

Alberto Giacometti, Head of Diego (1959-1960) clay. 11,8 × 6 × 8,3 cm Fondation Giacometti © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris 2024 

Yes, Envisagement offers an enjoyable and intimate view of globalized multiculturalism as Cherri’s grafted hybridizations push back against identity and the purity of time fixations. Here I am far from periodic categories, once typical of the museum context. I am in the fuzzy world of networked anti-contextualized categories, typical of AI and the global economic order, where geographical distance and cultural time differences appear almost irrelevant. Though Cherri scrupulously lists the details of his appropriated fragments (that he often purchases at auction), his carte blanche approach to the world—and Alberto Giacometti—lead me into a zone of context-less cultural skimmings positioned in juxtaposition with Giacometti’s devotion to intense and focused looking at existential depth. On view through March 24, 2024. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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